Thursday, 18 November 2010

Revenge of the BoBi - taking no prisoner

I was almost home. So close that I could actually see my building but there was still the new T-junction in the southern part of the Elephant and Castle to negotiate. The ride from Shoreditch had gone well and the bike was one of the smooth and responsive ones.

There was a bit of a jam at the light but they had just turned green and traffic was moving on. So was I at the same speed not blocking anybody's way. Or was I. As I was about to pass the lights, going straight in front of me down Newington Butts, a white van came rushing to my left clearly trying to overtake me to turn down the Walworth Road on the left, cutting my way and forcing me aside.

Earlier on Tower Bridge I had seen a 141 bus trying to do the same to another cyclist for about a quarter of the bridge, the driver using his horn to express his displeasure at the impudence of the cyclist who rightly was refusing to give way. Not such behaviour would happen if the bike was in fact a car.

Already slightly riled by the bridge incident, and having learnt in the past few month of using the BoBi that we are too easily ignored by certain drivers, I decided that enough was enough and that the van driver would not drive away freely. I gave a big resounding whack to the side of the van with my fist as I let him pass me by and then moved on. As I looked I saw that he had stopped a few metres away either wondering what had happened or more certainly wondering if he had hit me. He could not have ignored the fact of my presence.

Soon I heard him yelling and shouting but I was already riding away, my right arm raised, hoisting aloft the standard of my victory: my middle finger. And that felt good!

This was originally posted on 17 November on the BorisBike forum, here.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A Short History of the Elephant and Castle and Its Name

Last night I attended a lecture by local historian Stephen Humphrey who discussed the general history of the Elephant & Castle, focussing more particularly on what he called its heyday (between 1850 and 1940).

This is part of a week-long art project (The Elephant Project) hosted in an empty unit on the first floor of the infamous shopping centre, aiming to chart some of the changes currently happening to the area.

When an historian starts talking about the Elephant and Castle, there is one subject he can not possibly avoid, even if he wanted to. Indeed my unsuspecting announcement on Facebook that I was attending such talk prompted a few people to ask the dreaded question: Where does the name of the area come from, for realz?

Panoramic view of the Elephant and Castle around 1960/61.

Those of us less badly informed than the rest have long discarded the theory that the name comes from the linguistic deformation of "Infanta de Castille", a name which would have become attached to this little bit of South London because the said imaginary Infanta may have one day stopped there for some refreshment or something.

We are more likely to believe in the other erroneous notion that the name has something to do with the Worshipful Company of Cutlers and their crest (which can sometimes - but not always - include an elephant carrying a castle on its back) thought to have been gained (in 1622) because of the use they make of ivory for the handles of their wares.

Obviously knowing his business, Mr Humphrey started the talk on that very subject and lost no time in debunking the Ivory Theory. The area, which has no particular connection with Cutlers, simply takes its name from the pub that has graced the place for over 200 years.

The reasons why the first landlord of the pub decided to name his premises that way are however lost in the midst of time. It is likely that he just chose something a bit exotic that people would nonetheless be familiar with.

What Mr Humphrey is certain of, however, is that the image of an elephant carrying a castle on its back was, for centuries, a very common one in the popular imagination. For him, the image gain currency at least as early as Hannibal's use of elephants as "assault vehicles" around 200 BC. The first appearance of "armoured" elephants (ie carrying warriors in some sort of protective structure) in what would become England happened when the Roman emperor Claudius came over here with his own beasts in 43 AD.

After that, that particular sight probably became quite rare but it survived in various representations (in illuminated manuscripts or the capitals of church columns) and by the middle ages had solidified into an elephant (not always very life-like) carrying a castle (the visual short-hand for something armoured). It is possible to imagine that this became the chosen way to signify that what we are looking at is actually an elephant, since most people, including the artists, would never have seen the real thing let alone know what they really look like.

Looking south: The 3rd and last incarnation of the Elephant and Castle pub on that location, between 1898 and 1959. The small cupola at the back of the building is the Northern Line tube station, still in the same location, albeit in a different shape.

A map dated 1681 shows the area comprising two triangular "islands" delimited by roads. Things stayed that way right until end of the 1950s. Until the mid 1600s the smaller island (north of the site) had been empty but then a farrier decided to rent it and build premises for his workshop which he named the White Horse.

The first mention of the pub under the name of the Elephant and Castle comes in a document dated 21 March 1765 in which the Mannor of Walworth (the equivalent of the council) ordered Mr Frost, the landlord, to do some repairs on this property. Another document (a bill of fares) shows that there probably was already a pub on this location about 10 years before that.

In Georgian time the building was pulled down and rebuilt in a grander, more fashionable style (see the second image (wrongly dated 1912) on this page). In 1898, the building became even grander and put on the Victorian face it kept until 1959 when it was finally pulled down to give way to the southern part of the northern roundabout. By that time, however, the war had already started the demolition work, destroying the roof.

There are still premises called the Elephant and Castle pub. It is however now a Thai restaurant, rather than a bona fide pub, that sits on the old site of the Rockingham Arms, which has itself also moved slightly north.

The southern roundabout, and the shopping centre being built - 1963

Until 1751, when Westminster Bridge was built and required the reopening of the then mostly abandoned road that now forms the New Kent Road for extra access, the village of Newington (New Town), as the area was known, was quietly dozing in the slowly encroaching shadow of London (still mostly on the other side of the river by then). Blackfriars Bridge (the 3rd bridge over the river) was built in 1769.

This extra traffic started to change everything and, by the time the Second World War arrived, the area, now absorbed in the fabric of the sprawling city and known by the name of its most prominent and enduring feature, had become a bustling quarter known as “the Piccadilly of South London”; offering Baptist churches (two of about 2000 seats each and one of almost 6000 seats - roughly the size of the Albert Hall), several music hall and theatres, a cinema (the Trocadero, open in 1930, seating 3500 and boasting the largest Wurlitzer organ in Europe), factories, a huge department store (William Tarn and Co) and dozens of smaller concerns.

Looking north: reproductions of postcards showing the Elephant and Castle in 1934 and 1951

It is not however the war that put paid to all this, as may be imagined. Although many buildings in the area had been damaged or destroyed, many also survived. The Greater London Council, however, in keeping with the then prevalent idea of modern urban progress, had plans for the area. In the early 1960s the bulldozers moved in. Soon the area was unrecognisable and, despite boasting the first covered shopping mall in Europe, had lost most of its vitality and certainly its human face.

And 50 years later, the area is about to be transformed again. Already some changes have happened. Part of the subways (a version of which first appeared in the area in 1911) will be filled by summer 2011. New buildings are growing (including the tallest residential building in London and first building in the world with wind turbines incorporated to its fabric), others are being emptied, earmarked for demolition. Let's hope the changes are for the better and that the Elephant will once again become the chaotic and excited hub of humanity it used to be.

Images taken with my iPhone (hence the low quality). Most documents were provided by Stephen Humphrey.

A book on the history of the Elephant and Castle by Stephen Humphrey is now available here.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

BT are Rubbish - 2

The following was written at the end of September 2010 but due to a mix up with the scheduling system of Blogger, this post has been waiting in limbo ever since. Here is it now.

Two months more or less to the day after I moved into my know flat, I have finally got a landline that is working and an the Internet connection I needed it for.

I must admit to suffering from a bad case of suppression of what exactly happened since my previous post on the subject. All I know is that further phone calls, each bringing its own story and contradicting the previous one, took place. I also remember spending another off waiting at home for an appointment with an engineer that did not turn up, like the first one.

When I talked about compensations for clearly not delivering the service I had paid for I was more or less told to forget about it (I had already been given a free month rental, if you remember). And there is also no real complaint procedure other than getting in touch with Customer Service or the BTcare twitter account when there is a technical problem.

I have said it before and I'll say it again to as many people as possible: don't use BT if you can avoid them.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Gareth Thomas at the LGBT History Month pre-launch event


Last night I attended the evening part of the pre-launch event of LGBT History Month 2011 which was taking place at Twickenham Stadium. The Month is focusing on LGBT sports for the next two years, leading to the Olympic Games.

The day was a busy one with many things happening, including the 3rd UK LGBT Sports Summit. The evening leg of the event included a Judjitsu demonstration, various speakers and a panel discussion chaired by Jane Hill and bringing together out LGBT athletes Gareth Thomas, John Amaechi and Clare Harvey.

My pictures of the evening can be found in this flickr set here. Some of them have appeared on Gareth Thomas' official Facebook page.